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The minister for nuclear power

Feb 20, 2020 • 14m 52s

Meet Keith Pitt - climate sceptic, coal evangelist and the parliament’s most strident nuclear advocate. He’s also the new minister for Water and Resources.

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The minister for nuclear power

166 • Feb 20, 2020

The minister for nuclear power

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

Australia’s new Minister for Resources is a climate sceptic and coal evangelist. He’s also parliament’s biggest advocate for nuclear power. Today, Mike Seccombe on what Keith Pitt’s promotion could mean for nuclear power in this country.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male 1:

‘Now freshly minted Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia, Keith Pitt.’

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male 2:

‘I expect Mr Pitt to do an outstanding job, he’ll be Pitt the performer up here for North Queensland in particular’

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male 3:

‘He’s made it very clear he’s a big fan of coal, he’s an outspoken advocate of nuclear energy, but he’s gunna have to…’

Archival Tape -- Unidentified male 4:

‘And he’s an electrical engineer and even better than that he’s a Queensland, and even better than that he’s a north Queenslander so how could he do anything other than an amazing job?’

RUBY:

So, Mike, who is Keith Pitt?

MIKE:

Essentially, he's a sugar cane farmer from North Queensland, from around Bundaberg. He's also worked as an electrical apprentice, a tradesman and an engineer.

RUBY:

Mike Seccombe is the national correspondent for The Saturday Paper.

MIKE:

And in 2013, he was elected to the seat of Hinkler for the Nationals.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘Sugar, sweet potatoes, avocados, mangoes, macadamias, capsicums, tomatoes, strawberries, the list goes on: Hinkler has a proud history as one of the nation’s food bowls.’

MIKE:

Which centres around Bundaberg. So, you know, in cane country.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘The Hinkler electorate is also known for innovation: from the mechanical cane harvester to beverages like Bundaberg Rum and Bundaberg Brewed Drinks.’

MIKE:

In 2016, he was appointed assistant Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. And the only other really notable thing about him, I think, is that he was one of four members of the House of Representatives to vote against same sex marriage in 2017.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘In my electorate Mr Deputy Speaker, I’ve supported the ‘no’ case consistently through two elections…’

MIKE:

So to sum up, he's a deeply conservative bloke.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘I’m aware Deputy speaker of the opportunity to abstain from the vote, but in this place I'm one of those in this place who believe you should always have the courage of your convictions.’

[Music ends]

RUBY:

And so as of last week, Keith Pitt is the Minister for resources. Can you tell me how that happened?

MIKE:

It can be a long story or a short one. But the reason he's back, essentially, is because there was a ministerial reshuffle. And the reason there was a ministerial reshuffle was because his predecessor in that portfolio, Matt Canavan, resigned because he was a supporter of Barnaby Joyce's leadership ambitions. So Canavan out, Pitt in.

RUBY:

And it all goes back to Barnaby…

MIKE:

Yeah, all disasters can be sourced to Barnaby at the moment, that's right.

RUBY:

Again, as a result of this, Pitt has also picked up the water portfolio, which would make him responsible for the Murray-Darling Basin Plan as well.

MIKE:

Yeah, that's right. He's in charge of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, despite the fact that Bundaberg is a very long way from the Murray-Darling Basin. So this distance is something that his critics have seized upon to suggest that he's not suited to the role. South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young tweeted and I quote, ‘another Queensland Nationals politician, given the job of Water Minister, R.I.P the Murray-Darling Basin.’

Of course, there are others who suggest that maybe his appointment means that he won't favor one sector of the basin over the others, which has happened in the past.

But I guess the big take out of it is that there are very worrying signs here for the environment. In the past, Pitt's voted to make more water available for use by irrigators in the Basin, which of course means less for environmental flows. And you know, anyone who clocked the news about the massive fish kills in the system last year would know that the Basin's already in very, very poor shape. So he takes control of arguably one of the most contested policy areas in Australia. We've been arguing about this for decades now.

So people will be very closely watching what Pitt decides to do in this space. And I might note that already the irrigators are calling on him to come and visit and consult with them. So clearly they're already lining up to persuade him to give them more water.

RUBY:

Ok so in addition to water, Keith Pitt is also responsible for resources, which includes things like coal and gas. Where does he sit on energy policy?

MIKE:

Firmly in the camp that opposes any serious response to the climate emergency. He's anti the Paris agreement, to which Australia is a signatory and under which we signed up to cut our emissions by 26 to 28 per cent by 2030. In fact, he's so anti-Paris. It was actually one of the reasons he quit the ministry back in 2018, just a few days after Scott Morrison took over the prime ministership from Malcolm Turnbull.

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Female newsreader:

‘Nationals MP Keith Pitt has announced he’s quitting the ministry, this comes ahead of the new Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiling his cabinet…’

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘This is just the reality of politic, if you don’t accept what the government’s position as a minister, you should resign, that’s what you should do’.

MIKE:

And the background to it is that having helped dispose of Turnbull, the Coalition's climate skeptics of which he is one, wanted to see Peter Dutton elevated to the prime ministership, and their hope was that he would abandon the Paris commitments. But obviously that didn't happen: Morrison won, Australia, stayed in the Paris Accord and Pitt quit. And on his way out, he said, and I quote, I will always put the national interest and the interests of my constituents above my own. I will always put reducing power prices before Paris.

So I suppose you would have to say this was a noble act of principle giving up the ministerial salary, except, as I would observe, the principle that he based it on was false in that rather than increasing power prices, renewable energy is decreasing power prices according to all the evidence.

So now the man who quit the ministry over this subject is back in charge of resources in cabinet. And I might add, he's also the parliament's most vocal supporter of nuclear power.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

[Music ends]

RUBY:

So, Mike, tell me about Keith Pitt's interest in nuclear energy.

MIKE:

Right. Well, he's been a booster for nuclear for a long time. He said a lot about it. Only last year he was the driving force behind the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry to look into the potential for a nuclear industry in Australia.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘The point I want to make is that no one is suggesting we are building nuclear reactors in the middle of Melbourne. But this about the parliament having the opportunity to have the discussion, the conversation with the Australian people…’

MIKE:

So he worked alongside some of his coalition colleagues lobbying for what he said, a much needed conversation with the Australian people. And he pointed out perfectly, accurately that Australia is one of the few developed nations that has no nuclear power as an energy source.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘Nuclear power is utilised by more than 30 countries around the world, we are the only major economy that doesn’t make use of this technology.’

MIKE:

And, and yet we mine a lot of it and send it overseas for others to use. So, you know, we are in a slightly odd, if not to say, hypocritical position on the subject of nukes.

RUBY:

And so, Mike, what was the outcome of that inquiry?

MIKE:

Well, it produced a report the coalition members did actually end up recommending some very tentative steps towards a potential nuclear industry. They recommended that the Australian government consider the prospect of nukes as part of the future energy mix.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘There was a recommendation from a majority of the committee that the moratorium should be lifted for more modern technology. So that means, not the things designed in the 50’s and 60’s i.e. as in Chernobyl and other places…’

MIKE:

And called for them to lift the moratorium on small modular nuclear reactors, which are a new development in the field and not, as I understand it, very advanced. But the report had the sniff about it of throwing a bone to the nukes like Pitt. And of course, the non-government members of the committee were all in favour of maintaining the status quo, i.e. no nukes in Australia.

RUBY:

And so why does Keith Pitt think that nuclear energy would be a good idea?

MIKE:

Well, he can see that there's a lot of concern about the coal industry and the emissions it generates. You know, in the context of the climate crisis and of course one thing you can say for nuclear energy is that it doesn't produce carbon dioxide. So that's part of it. But he's also very anti-renewable. So, you know, if coal's on the way out and you're anti-renewables, you're really left with only one option, which is nuclear power.

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘Because what we know from those opposite...if they were serious about this, if it is a climate emergency, then everything is on the table—everything—and we shouldn't just be ruling things in and out because we like them or we don't like them. That means that you should consider nuclear energy.’

MIKE:

So, you know, he suggests it could be a new strand to the economy and underpin, you know, fabrication, reprocessing, mining, et cetera. And and, of course, the further export of uranium. And his argument is that would create lots of new jobs. You know, he's a Queensland Nat. So his arguments are all about trying to soothe the concerns of people who currently work in the coal industry, both in mining the stuff and working for coal fired electricity generators and trying to convince them that there may be jobs in the future from this alternative form of energy.

[Music starts]

Archival Tape -- Keith Pitt:

‘Once again I say to those opposite, to those who are here in the room once again, we are looking for an adult conversation on a difficult issue, an adult conversation on a difficult issue.

However, in Queensland we know the state Labor government are unable to do that. In fact, Minister Dick came out last week and talked about three-headed turtles, about glowing animals and all sorts of things. I'd say to the minister: spend less time watching The Simpsons and more time informing yourself.’

[Music ends]

RUBY:

So does Keith have much support for this position?

MIKE:

There's some and I might add in in unlikely quarters. There's a bloke called Geoff Dyke, who's the Victorian secretary of the mining and energy branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the CFMEU, which the government normally despises. And he actually backs Pitt's arguments and says that we should look at nuclear power.

And as he put it to me, quote, ‘When these coal plants get shut down, workers need to transition to something. And we've got blokes earning up to $200,000 a year. And if you transition them to putting solar panels on roofs, they'd probably only get $45,000.’

So, you know, it's an argument based entirely upon the extremely high levels of pay of members of his union in that industry.

RUBY:

Okay. So how likely is it then with Keith Pitt now in charge, that we'll see more development of the nuclear industry?

MIKE:

Well, the first thing I would observe is that opposition to nuclear power in Australia is possibly not as high as you might expect. There was an essential poll last year that found 44 per cent of those surveyed supported nuclear power plants and only 40 per cent opposed. So that seems fairly promising.

On the other hand, when you ask them where these plants should be put, only a quarter of them said they would be comfortable living close to one, which kind of highlights one of the big problems faced by the nuclear advocates, which is, you know, basically NIMBYism people might approve of it in principle, but they don’t want it in their backyard. But the bigger issue here is not safety. That's not the big barrier, the big barriers cost. A report came out from the CSIRO and the Australian energy market operator and it found nuclear to be by far the most expensive.

The capital cost for nuclear was something like eight times the capital cost of renewables. So on that basis alone, I think it's highly unlikely that we're going to have a nuclear power industry anytime soon in Australia, even given Pitt's deep passion for it.

[Music starts]

MIKE:

I expect, though, we might see a few more incremental steps like that committee report. But the prospect of a reactor being built I think is pretty remote.

Far the greater concern, I would suggest about Pitt is not that he's pro-nuclear, it's that he's so deeply skeptical of renewables and so very, very pro-coal. Before he was put back on the front bench, he was part of a group of Nationals MPs demanding the construction of multiple new coal fired power stations around Australia.

And one of his first acts after his appointment as resources minister was to announce a $4 million feasibility study into a new coal plant at Collinsville in Queensland. Despite the fact that all the experts say no such plant is necessary or feasible. So he did that and then he did a round of media interviews shortly after taking the job, calling for more coal, more gas, more uranium exports.

In short, he's not looking for answers to the climate crisis, he’s instead apparently intent on exacerbating the problem.

[Music ends]

RUBY:

Mike, thanks for chatting.

MIKE:

No worries at all.

[Advertisement]

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today, the principal of St Kevin’s College in Melbourne has resigned. On Monday the ABC’s Four Corners program revealed Stephen Russell had written a character reference for one of the school’s athletic coaches after he was convicted of grooming a student. In a letter sent to parents Russell said he was resigning immediately “for the wellbeing of the school and students”.

And US President Donald Trump has gone on a clemency spree. Yesterday he pardoned 10 people including a former New York police commissioner convicted of tax fraud and investment banker Mike Milken, known as the “Junk Bond King”.

Trump also commuted the sentence of former Illinois Governor and contestant on The Apprentice Rod Blagojevich, who was jailed for soliciting bribes.

I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am. See ya tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

Archival Tape -- The Simpsons:

Carl: Of course! Nuclear power.
Homer: It’s the job of tomorrow… today!
Lenny: Really?
Homer: Well, that settles it. For all those reasons and more let us choose an electrifying career in nuclear power!

Keith Pitt is a climate sceptic and coal evangelist. He is also the minister for Water and Resources. Mike Seccombe on how the parliament’s most strident nuclear advocate ended up with a portfolio that will help decide Australia’s stance on uranium.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Canavan’s successor apt to fuel energy wars in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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166: The minister for nuclear power